Mint 400 Desert Race Offers High-Flying Off-Road Hijinks

The desert doesn’t care how much money you’ve spent on your rig. It doesn’t want to know about the luxurious RV parked back at your pit or how many sponsorship checks you’ve cashed on your way to the starting line of the Mint 400, Nevada’s longest-running off-road race. As soon as the lights on the tree flash from red to green and you’ve made your way over the double-hump jump alongside the driver who was lined up beside you, you’re staring down three 119-mile laps of constantly shifting sand, ruts, boulders, and wash on your own with only radio and transponder linking you to the team you left behind in the pits.

 

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Even though this year’s 350-mile race came down to a mere 44 seconds between first place Rob MacCachran and second place Jason Voss in the marquee-level Unlimited Trophy Truck class, individuals compete with each other only in the broadest sense. Unlike most forms of motorsports, long-distance off-road racing pits you against the most formidable, and immoveable, opponent you’re likely to encounter: the Mojave Desert.

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As such, events like the Mint 400 (more accurately, the Polaris RZR Mint 400) are largely won on preparation. That and luck, of course, but it’s a lot harder to spend the days leading up to the weekend channeling the racing gods’ good graces than it is meticulously checking and re-checking every aspect of the vehicle you’re about to send bounding out in 90-degree weather for upwards of six hours straight. Considering roughly half the teams that enter the Mint never finish, making your own luck becomes paramount in the scramble leading up to the event.

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This makes the Mint 400’s pits the entire operation’s beating heart. With five far-flung spectator areas to catch a glimpse of the racers in full flight and with the starting area only capable of holding so many fans at a time, there’s no crush of the crowd like you’d experience at NASCAR, F1, or IndyCar. The pits, on the other hand, are the nucleus, a space loaded with trailers, trucks, and buggies parked nose-to-tail. Crew members wander from one pop-up tent to another renewing old acquaintances, making new ones, and desperately trying to scrounge up last-minute parts to ensure just enough manna to pull through the day.

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Dust is everywhere. The whole race is plopped down just outside of the town of Primm, completely unsheltered from the elements. A strong breeze gusts through the pits at regular intervals, filling every orifice—human or otherwise—with a combination of grit and dryness that by the day’s end makes you feel like you’ve been media-blasted inside and out.

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People are everywhere, too. They roll tires, cluster in small bunches around open engine compartments, and cover babies’ ears as four-wheeled contraptions rumble down the narrow dirt ribbons that serve as the arteries of the operation.

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This is a pro-am event, which means that most of the 20-plus classes are filled by dreamers stacked alongside those living the full-ride life they’d love to have. That’s not entirely accurate; most are here simply for the challenge of surviving the Mint rather than the pursuit of the purse or sponsorship decals slathered all over the professional rigs. Families—wives, husbands, sons, daughters —put the finishing touches on ATVs, side-by-sides, vintage buggies, sand rails, and trucks that cost a fraction of the half-million-dollar Unlimited class entries that dominate coverage.

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Think of it as NHRA in the desert. The race offers the amateurs a chance to rub shoulders with the professionals operating at the highest echelon of the sport. That’s a two-way street, because when you’re up against the Mojave, everyone in the pits is a friend and ally rather than a potential rival. Your best insurance policy against the uncaring, sun-baked plain is another driver willing to stop and lend a hand when things go pear-shaped at Mile 217.

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How much does it cost to play in the sand? If you’re building your own buggy or entering one of the several stock(ish) truck classes, it can be a surprisingly affordable way to dip your toes into motorsports, provided you live close enough to Las Vegas (home of the original Mint Hotel that gave the race its name in 1967) to make travel feasible. Still, even some of the speedier strata won’t raise eyebrows for anyone who’s ever funded their own stock car or rally campaign.

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We spoke to Jim Riley of Jim Riley Racing, whose team runs both the big-buck Unlimited class where the sky is the limit in terms of power, as well as the much more reasonable Spec Trophy Truck class. The latter is where you can dump a Chevy LS3 or similar-output Ford motor linked to a Turbo 400 transmission into a chassis that’s restricted to 37-inch tires with the rest up to the builder’s imaginations. As Jim puts it, it’s the difference between a $75,000 motor that needs $20,000 of prep before each race and a $7,000 engine that will last the entire season, putting it well within the reach of grassroots-level teams.

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For those who’ve outgrown closed-course off-road racing, the excitement of point-to-point style events like the Mint 400 is a strong draw that keeps the entry list swollen every year. If you’re willing to endure an event as grueling as the Mint 400 as a stepping stone to the longer Baja 500 and Baja 1000 races, then the Nevada-based event also allows you to get your boots dusty before graduating to more extreme tests of human and machine.

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Since the Martelli Brothers graduated from producing Ken Block’s Gymkhana series to partnering with Best In The Desert Racing Association in 2012 to make the Mint part of the championship circuit, the infusion of energy, investment, and interest in the competition has surged. It’s a feeling you can’t find on asphalt and there’s a unique camaraderie that links one team to the next in a celebration of human triumph over an ancient and unyielding environmental enemy.

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Oh, and plenty of sick jumps, too. Never forget the sick jumps.

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover